On Feb. 28, Taiwan will commemorate the 70th anniversary of what is known as the 2.28 Incident, when Taiwanese rioted against mainlanders from the Kuomintang (KMT) who had taken over control of the island when the Japanese departed in 1945 following their defeat in World War II.

Islanders were fed up with corruption and misrule by an unwelcome group of intruders that had usurped power and lorded it over them. Mainlanders were seen as backward and the KMT soldiers prone to violence. Police harassment of a street peddler and the killing of a bystander who came to her aid was the spark that lit the dry kindling of popular grievance.

Ian Rowen, a postdoctoral research fellow at Academia Sinica, argues in a forthcoming article in the International Journal of Transitional Justice that “KMT rule quickly alienated Taiwanese by centralizing power under a brutal and corrupt authority, dismissing Taiwanese as a colonized and ‘enslaved’ people, and pillaging resources to support its failing war effort in China.”

After the riots, the KMT declared martial law, while Taiwanese organized and made demands for self-rule. On March 8, 1947, military reinforcements arrived from China to crush the uprising, killing some 10,000 people and wounding perhaps another 30,000, targeting educated elites.

Native-born Taiwanese, raised under Japanese colonial rule (1895-1945), were forcibly “re-educated” as Chinese subjects. The official language changed from Japanese to Mandarin, a Sino-centric history was propagated in textbooks and there was a Sinicized renaming of streets and public spaces. “For nascent Taiwanese nationalists,” Rowen notes, “this period definitively established the KMT’s identity as an illegitimate ‘alien regime.’ “

While the uprising asserted a distinctive Taiwanese identity, the crackdown “completely silenced Taiwanese society,” according to Victor Louzon, a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute. Those who rebelled, he explains, “selectively mobilized parts of the Japanese colonial past” to assert a separate non-Chinese identity. “This was not at all a pro-Japan movement,” he adds, “but it used elements of the colonial past to criticize the KMT government.”

Louizon counters that while Japanese right-wingers like Yoshinori Kobayashi in his manga “Taiwan-ron” invoke “this situation as a proof that Japanese rule was so enlightened and benevolent it should be rehabilitated,” this “is of course something very few people would say in Taiwan.”

While all Taiwanese are not starry-eyed about Japanese rule, Louzon maintains that many on the island believe “they had a right to autonomy or independence all along because it has a distinct identity from the mainland, and clearly part of this difference comes from the colonial experience.” The 1947 uprising was thus an assertion of a Taiwanese identity and remains a powerful symbol for those who oppose reunification with the mainland.

Beijing views the “Japan complex” of wistful nostalgia for the colonial era among Taiwanese as betrayal. But Louzon maintains that “positive reference to Japan would not be used against Chinese pretenses that much if Beijing did not demand the Taiwanese’ submission in the name of national identity.”

The KMT repressed discussion of the 2.28 Incident during the Cold War “White Terror” (1949-87) of harsh authoritarian rule that targeted alleged communist infiltrators from the mainland. With the democratization movement in the 1980s, however, Louzon argues that activists started “pushing for more transparency about what had happened, especially the bloody suppression, and for rehabilitation and compensation of the victims.” He adds: “This movement was basically victorious in the 1990s (although no perpetrator was prosecuted). Even the KMT had to accept the rehabilitation and the truth-making process.”

Significantly, Louzon explains, “this movement for transitional justice also dovetailed with identity politics in Taiwan, since pro-independence people tended to see the 2.28 Incident as proof that there was such a thing as a Taiwanese nation (or a ‘Taiwanese consciousness’), which rose up against intruders in 1947.”

Rowen argues that for many Taiwanese, transitional justice is unfinished business. “The 2.28 Incident has been the most straightforward episode of state violence that Taiwan has addressed in its evolving approach to transitional justice,” he says. “Although monuments and memorials to that bloody moment have proliferated, and youth now carry the torch forward with annual events like the 2.28 Gongsheng [coexistence] music and politics ‘festival,’ it has been less easy to name perpetrators or make comprehensive reparations for the later White Terror period, which lasted decades and implicated far more people.”

Interestingly, Louzon draws attention to the changing circumstances that have endowed the 2.28 Incident with new implications, arguing that due to “the increased assertiveness of Chinese irredentism, the 2.28 (Incident) primarily became a cautionary tale against the possible effects of a reunification with mainland China.” For most Taiwanese, reunification is a nightmare scenario because it would threaten hard-won democratic rights.

On May 20, 2016, Tsai Ing-wen, the chair of the Democratic Progressive Party, was inaugurated as president of Taiwan. During her inauguration speech she said that the “goal of transitional justice is to pursue true social reconciliation, so that all Taiwanese can take to heart the mistakes of that era.”

As Rowen argues, Tsai’s call for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) “was a sharp contrast with the deafening quiet across the Taiwan Strait, where Chinese government officials and state media marked the 50th anniversary of the violence and depredations of the Cultural Revolution with muted and terse statements.”

According to Rowen, the TRC “signals a departure from Taiwan’s authoritarian past and draws a distinction from China’s authoritarian present, while demonstrating adherence to international norms of human rights, democracy and self-determination.” He adds, “Taiwan’s truth commission will no doubt further highlight these differences between its political culture and that of China. This distinction, which posits Taiwan as a democratic nation capable of admitting the state’s role in past violence, appeals to Taiwanese nationals, realigns Taiwan regionally, and legitimates Taiwan internationally.”

But defying Beijing carries risks for Taipei, subject as it is to economic blackmail by the mainland. Tsai, according to Rowen, needs to balance local aspirations and anxieties with mainland China’s uncompromising position about eventual reunification, “maintaining her support from a growing independence movement without actually declaring de jure independence, which would likely risk military action from China and prompt an international crisis.”

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

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